2021 has been a restless year for Central Asia – from Sadyr Japarov’s rise to the presidency in Kyrgyzstan to interethnic tensions in Kazakhstan and low-level violence in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Next door in Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Kabul and formed a new government. Bishkek has taken a cautious stance vis-à-vis the new neighbours, Tashkent has tried to keep out Afghan refugees, while Dushanbe has adopted harsh rhetoric and aims to fortify the Tajik-Afghan border with Chinese support. Russia, meanwhile, has shored up military exercises with its Central Asian allies in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Figure 1: Violent events in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from 1 Dec 2020 to 1 Nov 2021, adapted from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), https://acleddata.com/.
However, all of this was overshadowed by the near-outbreak of war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late April. A small-scale clash over a surveillance camera at a shared irrigation infrastructure rapidly escalated on 28 April. While small incidents involving stone-throwing are relatively common at undemarcated sections of the long border, this time border troops intervened with heavy forces in simultaneous escalations all along the border. According to Kyrgyz reports, Tajik forces moved widely into undisputed Kyrgyz territory with heavy artillery and an attack helicopter. It was also the first time that automatic gunfire was used at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The violence killed 34 on the Kyrgyz side and 15 on the Tajik, while displacing thousands of civilians and leaving behind looted and burned villages. A ceasefire agreement on 1 May stopped the violence, with all troops withdrawing from the affected Sughd (Tajikistan) and Batken (Kyrgyzstan) regions by 3 May.
This is the context in which the EU was planning the 10th phase of its Border Management Programme in Central Asia (BOMCA) for the period 2021-25. The first iteration of this programme started in 2003. The new phase, with a total budget of €21.65 million, was launched on 1 April, right before the outbreak of violence on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, and was officially presented on 7 December 2021. The Latvian border guard leading BOMCA stressed the challenge of finding the “right balance” between security and mobility at Central Asia’s borders.
The EU’s timid response to an almost-war on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border
Following the Soviet collapse, local disputes over previously shared water resources and pasture lands, now separated by boundaries which were never designed to become sovereign borders, are common in the Ferghana valley, where the territories of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan meet in an odd chessboard pattern of exclaves, enclaves and jagged lines. The particularly violent April escalation took place amid changing regime dynamics. While Japarov, the new Kyrgyz President, seemed to be consolidating his authority with risky populist moves, President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan felt emboldened by political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan and increased military support from the Kremlin.
The EU should avoid being seen by Moscow as a challenger to its regional hegemony in Central Asia. Yet, neither can the EU afford to stand idly by. Over a third of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is not demarcated. The combination of disputed borders, water scarcity and rural population growth will not vanish overnight. Bishkek has warned downstream states that it will need to keep more water for itself to avoid electricity shortages in 2022. Kyrgyzstan also imposed restrictions on mobility of Tajikistani goods and citizens, trying to force Dushanbe to come to the negotiating table, and is buying armed drones, armoured vehicles and sniper rifles for border security purposes.
With BOMCA, the EU runs the largest assistance programme in Central Asia, but it has remained relatively quiet vis-à-vis the violence of April 2021. The EU expressed its willingness to provide “technical assistance through its regional programmes dealing with border management and water management, as well as continued political support for a stability and prosperity in the region, which are key priorities of the EU Strategy on Central Asia.” But it seems unclear whether BOMCA will be re-thought on the basis of recent dynamics. EU documents concerning BOMCA 10 make no mention of concrete steps towards peace and conflict resolution. Not a single statement about the Kyrgyz-Tajik border violence appears on the BOMCA website or Facebook page, nor in the relevant Twitter feeds of its implementation organisation, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). The only figure publicly calling for cross-border peace, solidarity and cooperation seems to have been Peter Burian, former EU Special Representative (EUSR) for Central Asia, who has since been replaced by Terhi Hakala.
If the 2019 EU strategy on Central Asia ought to be rejuvenating, with its focus on ‘resilience’, ‘connectivity’ and ‘regionalism’, the reaction to new outbreaks of violence appears to be disappointing. In addition, a more fundamental question should be asked: To what extent may EU actions in fact contribute to the problems on Central Asia’s borders, by turning them into matters of techno-bureaucratic security management rather than open political discussion, and supporting the state-building efforts of authoritarian elites?
International border management hardens conflict and ignores peace
In Central Asia, “international bureaucrats work across borders so as to change how borders work,” writes political sociologist Médéric Martin-Mazé. Analysing 205 border management projects implemented by the bureaucrats of international organisations working Central Asia, Martin-Mazé finds a highly competitive field of institutional actors who struggle over limited resources to implement their different visions of legitimate border governance. He suggests that the structure of this “bureaucratic field” of “bordering interventions” can be best described by two axes: mobility versus security, and autonomy versus dependence. The first axis opposes projects that aim to turn borders into ‘separators’, helping states contain complex ‘threats’, from projects that aim to turn borders into ‘connectors’, accelerating development through the movement of people and goods. Some border projects are more specialist, focusing on either mobility or security, while others are more generalist, uniting both aims. In addition, some border projects are closely dependent on their headquarters in ‘mainland’ Europe, while other implementers have accumulated enough material (funding, personnel) and immaterial (e.g. expertise, reputation) resources to act fairly autonomously.
Martin-Mazé’s analysis reveals that the EU’s BOMCA is the most powerful actor in Central Asian border governance, enjoying both autonomy and recognised expertise in both security and mobility. It is those projects funded by the EU rather than other donors, that can act most independently. Taken all together, security projects fare better than mobility projects. A quick scan of projects funded by the EU’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) from 2015 to 2022 show that this trend is not exclusive to border projects but applies more widely to the EU’s role in Central Asia (see figure 2). This development paradoxical for two reasons: First, the strengthening of Central Asia’s sovereign states seems to signal not independence but dependence on outside actors. Second, the most powerful actor in this strengthening process is related to the EU, the same actor which ought, perhaps, to promote regionalism and open borders, rather than the hardening of nation-states.
Scholars have long warned against the unreflective reproduction of dominant “discourses of danger,” and “konfliktologiia”, which have constructed the Ferghana Valley as a site of ambiguity and threat and reinvented it as an area for international intervention. Madeleine Reeves warned in her book Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia that “we should be wary of approaches to cross-border conflict prevention that identify a solution as lying in more fixing, more clarity, and more ‘state’ […] Delimitation, even at the scale of individual homes and land plots, risks generating further uncertainty at the very point that it is intended to foster clarity.” Forecasting the events of April-May 2021, Kemel Toktomushev wrote three years ago: “Strict border regimes often contribute to instability instead of strengthening fragile peace by hampering cross-border movement across invisible frontiers that have been long governed by established rules, traditions and history. […] The involvement of border guards and the use of military hardware are more likely to escalate the conflict to a completely new level.” Not porous borders or ambiguous practices of sharing are the fundamental problem, but the imposition of sharp state borders, the territorialisation and ethnicisation of identity boundaries, and the turning of local resource competition into a concern of national statehood. The perceived solution to the problem is actually the problem itself.
The EU and its multi-million BOMCA project are implicated in this process of fortifying Central Asian borders. What is required, by contrast, is a move from security thinking to peace thinking. This includes listening to local perspectives on resource use and mobility, fostering cross-border trust and dialogue, prioritising access to education and the right to water over security concerns, enforcing accountability mechanisms for perpetrators of violence, investing in durable infrastructure rather than border checkpoints, and ultimately considering shared rather than separate interests and identities. “Rather than encourage the ‘strong fences make good neighbours’ thinking,” writes Anna Matveeva, “we need a creative approach of shared sovereignty in order to transform seemingly intractable territorial disputes into sustainable peace.” Projects like BOMCA could help fund co-ethnic schools and buses on the border, rather than fences and border guards.
Central Asia deserves a better EU peacebuilding agenda – one that is creative yet prudent.
Aksana Ismailbekova, “Native Son: The Rise of Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov,” openDemocracy, 28 January 2021, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/native-son-the-rise-of-sadyr-japarov-kyrgyzstan/; Ayzirek Imanaliyeva and Peter Leonard, “Kyrgyzstan: Suspect Vote-Count Bungling Casts Shadow over Election,” Eurasianet, 28 November 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-suspect-vote-count-bungling-casts-shadow-over-election; Joanna Lillis, “Kazakhstan: Trial over Deadly Ethnic Violence Leaves Bitter Taste for Dungans,” Eurasianet, 28 April 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-trial-over-deadly-ethnic-violence-leaves-bitter-taste-for-dungans; Almaz Kumenov, “Kazakhstan: Rampage Follows Interethnic Brawl,” Eurasianet, 29 October 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-rampage-follows-interethnic-brawl; Kamila Ibragimova, “Tajikistan: Testy Demonstrations in the Pamirs Drag into Third Day,” Eurasianet, 27 November 2021, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-testy-demonstrations-in-the-pamirs-drag-into-third-day; “Standoff in Eastern Tajikistan Ends Peacefully,” Eurasianet, 29 November 2021, https://eurasianet.org/standoff-in-eastern-tajikistan-ends-peacefully; “Tajikistan: Authorities Go Back on Their Word in Deal with GBAO Residents,” Eurasianet, 10 December 2021, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-authorities-go-back-on-their-word-in-deal-with-gbao-residents. ↩︎
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva and Kamila Ibragimova, “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Diverge on Approaches to Afghanistan,” Eurasianet, 24 September 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-diverge-on-approaches-to-afghanistan; “Uzbekistan: Afghans Fleeing Taliban Get Cold Shoulder from Tashkent,” Eurasianet, 18 November 2021, https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-afghans-fleeing-taliban-get-cold-shoulder-from-tashkent; Kamila Ibragimova, “China to Build Tajik Police Base on Afghan Border,” https://eurasianet.org/china-to-build-tajik-police-base-on-afghan-border. ↩︎
“Rossiya, Tadzhikistan i Uzbekistan nachali ucheniya bliz afganskoy granitsy,” RIA Novosti, 5 August 2021, https://ria.ru/20210805/ucheniya-1744437081.html; “Rossiya uvelichila postavki oruzhiya stranam Tsentral’noy Azii,” RIA Novosti, 5 August 2021, https://ria.ru/20210805/oruzhie-1744528338.html; “Rossiyskie voennye nachali ucheniya v Tadzhikistane,” RIA Novosti, 17 August 2021, https://ria.ru/20210817/ucheniya-1746055742.html; “Rossiyskie voennye proveli ucheniya v Tadzhikistane,” RIA Novosti, 27 August 2021, https://ria.ru/20210827/ucheniya-1747454907.html; “V Kirgizii startovala aktivnaya faza ucheniy ODKB ‘Rubezh-2021’,” RIA Novosti, 9 September 2021, https://ria.ru/20210909/ucheniya-1749280733.html; “Rossiyskie voennye proveli ucheniya v gorakh Tadzhikistana,” RIA Novosti, 30 September 2021, https://ria.ru/20210930/ucheniya-1752425215.html; “Rossiyskie spetsialisty obuchili bolee shesti tysyach voennyx Tadzhikistana,” RIA Novosti, 8 November 2021, https://ria.ru/20211108/armiya-1758007769.html; “V MID rasskazali o sovmestnyx ucheniyax s Uzbekistanom i Tadzhikistanom,” RIA Novosti, 15 October 2021, https://ria.ru/20211015/ucheniya-1754758703.html; “Na yuge Tadzhikistana startovali ucheniya stran-chlenov ODKB,” RIA Novosti, 18 October 2021, https://ria.ru/20211018/ucheniya-1754989656.html; “ODKB usilit voennuyu infrastrukturu v Tadzhikistane,” RIA Novosti, 8 December 2021, https://ria.ru/20211208/tadzhikistan-1762747625.html. ↩︎
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva and Kamila Ibragimova, “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan: Communities Take Stock of Destruction Wrought by Border Unrest,” Eurasianet, 3 May 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-communities-take-stock-of-destruction-wrought-by-border-unrest; Shairbek Juraev, Eric McClinchey, Lawrence P. Markowitz, and Edward Schatz, “The Current Hostilities between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: Commentary by Dzhuraev, McGlinchey, Markowitz, and Schatz,” PONARS Eurasia, 6 May 2021, https://www.ponarseurasia.org/the-current-hostilities-between-kyrgyzstan-and-tajikistan-commentary-by-dzhuraev-mcglinchey-markowitz-and-schatz/; Beate Eschment, “Spiralling Violence on the Borders in the Fergana Valley?,” ZOiS Spotlight 26/2021, 7 July 2021, https://en.zois-berlin.de/publications/spiralling-violence-on-the-borders-in-the-fergana-valley. ↩︎
“Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Agree Ceasefire after Border Clashes,” Reuters, 1 May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/kyrgyzstan-accuses-tajikistan-amassing-troops-near-border-2021-05-01/; “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Completed Troops Withdrawal from Border - Border Service,” TASS Russian News Agency, 3 May 2021, https://tass.com/world/1286025. ↩︎
Press and Information Team of the Delegation to Kyrgyzstan, “Official Kick-Off Meeting of 10th Phase of BOMCA Programme,” Delegation of the European Union to the Kyrgyz Republic, 8 December 2021, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/kyrgyz-republic/108509/official-kick-meeting-10th-phase-bomca-programme_en; “BOMCA Programme 10th Phase in Central Asia and Afghanistan Launches its Initial Period,” State Border Guard Republic of Latvia, 15 June 2021, https://www.rs.gov.lv/en/article/bomca-programme-10th-phase-central-asia-and-afghanistan-launches-its-initial-period. ↩︎
Kemel Toktomushev, “Understanding Cross-Border Conflict in Post-Soviet Central Asia,” Connections 17, no. 1 (2018): 21-41, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26933983; Gulzana Kurmanalieva, “Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: Endless Border Conflicts,” L’Europe en Formation 1, no. 385 (2018): 121-130, https://www.cairn.info/revue-l-europe-en-formation-2018-1-page-121.htm; Richard Weitz, “Explaining the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Clash: Hypotheses in Search of Corroboration,” CACI Analyst, 14 July 2021, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13678-explaining-the-kyrgyz-tajik-border-clash-hypotheses-in-search-of-corroboration.html; Charles J. Sullivan, “Battle at the Border: An Analysis of the 2021 Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Conflict,” Asian Affairs 52, no. 3 (2021): 529-535. ↩︎
Weitz; Sullivan, 532-533 (see footnote 7). ↩︎
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva, “‘Expect Less Water Next Year,’ Kyrgyzstan Warns Downstream Neighbors,” Eurasianet, 5 November 2021, https://eurasianet.org/expect-less-water-next-year-kyrgyzstan-warns-downstream-neighbors. ↩︎
Kamila Ibragimova, “Border Closure Deepens Isolation of Tajikistan’s Pamir Highlands,” Eurasianet, 30 July 2021, https://eurasianet.org/border-closure-deepens-isolation-of-tajikistans-pamir-highlands; Ayzirek Imanaliyeva, “Kyrgyzstan Fortifies Border as Negotiations with Tajikistan Drag on,” 26 October 2021, Eurasianet, 26 October 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-fortifies-border-as-negotiations-with-tajikistan-drag-on. ↩︎
Commission Implementing Decision C(2019) 8188 final of 13 November 2019 on the financing of the multiannual action programme in favour of Central Asia for 2019 and for 2020, part 1, https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/system/files/aap-financing-central-asia-decision-c-2019-8188_en.pdf; Annex II of the Commission Implementing Decision on the financing of the multiannual action programme in favour of Central Asia for 2019 and 2020, part 1: Action Document for ‘Border Management Programme in Central Asia and Afghanistan – BOMCA Phase 10’, https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/system/files/aap-financing-central-asia-annex2-c-2019-8188_en.pdf; see also https://www.gtai.de/:PRO201909275009. ↩︎
See BOMCA: Border Management Programme in Central Asia, https://www.bomca-eu.org/en/news, https://www.bomca-eu.org/en/news/newsletters; Border Management Programme in Central Asia, https://www.facebook.com/BOMCAPROGRAMME; ICMPD Border Management & Security, https://twitter.com/ICMPD_BMS; ICMPD in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, https://twitter.com/ICMPDinEECA/. ↩︎
See EUSR CA, https://twitter.com/EUSR_CA (note that Peter Burian has not changed his Twitter name/handle since handing over the position to Terhi Hakala (compare: Terhi Hakala EUSR CA, https://twitter.com/terhihakala). ↩︎
Joint Communication JOIN(2019) 9 final of 15 May 2019 to the European Parliament and the Council. The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/joint_communication_-_the_eu_and_central_asia_-_new_opportunities_for_a_stronger_partnership.pdf; Mridvika Sahajpal and Steven Blockmans, “The New EU Strategy on Central Asia: Collateral Benefit?,” CEPS In Brief, 21 June 2019, https://www.ceps.eu/the-new-eu-strategy-on-central-asia/; Rick Fawn, “‘Not Here for Geopolitical Interests or Games’: The EU’s 2019 Strategy and the Regional and Inter-Regional Competition for Central Asia,” Central Asian Survey, https://doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2021.1951662. ↩︎
Médéric Martin-Mazé, “The Social Structures of Interventions: Projects, International Organizations and Border Security in Central Asia,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 15, no. 1 (2021): 70-95, here 71, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2019.1666335. ↩︎
Martin-Mazé, 86-90. ↩︎
Data for figure 2 is based on: European Commission, Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), “Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace: Map of Projects,” https://instrument-for-peace-map.ec.europa.eu/. See for an overview of older projects: Luigi De Martino, Peace Initiatives in Central Asia: An Inventory, Situation Report (Geneva: Cimera, 2001), [https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/48316/SR 2 Peace initiatives CA.pdf](https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/48316/SR 2 Peace initiatives CA.pdf). ↩︎
Martin-Mazé, 90. ↩︎
Toktomushev (see footnote 7); Nick Megoran and John Heathershaw, “Central Asia: The Discourse of Danger,” openDemocracy, 16 June 2011, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/central-asia-discourse-of-danger/ ; Chad D. Thompson and John Heathershaw, “Discourses of Danger in Central Asia: Introduction,” Central Asian Survey 24, no. 1 (2005): 1-4, https://doi.org/10.1080/13648470500049925; Madeleine Reeves, “Locating Danger: Konfliktologiia and the Search for Fixity in the Ferghana Valley Borderlands,” Central Asian Survey 24, no. 1 (2005): 67-81, https://doi.org/10.1080/02634930500050057; Nick Megoran, “Calming the Ferghana Valley Experts,” Central Asia Monitor, no. 5 (2000): 20-25, https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/nick.megoran/pdf/experts.pdf. ↩︎
Madeleine Reeves, Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), 248-249. ↩︎
Toktomushev, 34-35. ↩︎
Reeves, Border Work; Toktomushev; Matveeva (footnote 18). ↩︎
Reeves, Border Work; Toktomushev; Matveeva; Eschment (footnote 4); Madeleine Reeves, “Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s Roads of Separation,” Eurasianet, 23 January 2014, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-and-tajikistans-roads-of-separation; Hugh Williamson and Syinat Sultanalieva, “Perspectives: After Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Conflict, Time for a Human Rights Agenda,” Eurasianet, 20 May 2021, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-after-kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-border-conflict-time-for-a-human-rights-agenda; Diana Mamatova, “Grassroots Peacebuilding: Cross-Border Cooperation in the Ferghana Valley,” CAP Fellows Paper 202 (2018): 1-16, https://centralasiaprogram.org/grassroots-peacebuilding-cross-border-cooperation-ferghana-valley. On local knowledge in relation to peace in Central Asia, see: John Heathershaw, “Peacebuilding as Practice: Discourses from Post-Conflict Tajikistan,” International Peacekeeping 14, no. 2 (2007): 219-236, https://doi.org/10.1080/13533310601150826; Timur Dadabaev, “Nationhood through Neighborhood? From State Sovereignty to Regional Belonging in Central Asia,” Journal of Borderlands Studies, https://doi.org/10.1080/08865655.2021.2006750; Anna Kreikemeyer, “Studying Peace in and with Central Eurasia: Starting from Local and Trans-Local Perspectives,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14, no. 4 (2020): 465-482, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1786931; Anna Kriekemeyer, “Local Ordering and Peacebuilding in Kyrgyzstan: What Can Customary Orders Achieve?,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14, no. 4 (2020): 501-517, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1758425; Hafiz Boboyorov, “Symbolic Legitimacy of Social Ordering and Conflict Settlement Practices: The Role of Collective Identities in Local Politics of Tajikistan,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14, no. 4 (2020): 518-533, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1790870; Aksana Ismailbekova and Nick Megoran, “Peace in the Family is the Basis of Peace in the Country: How Women Contribute to Local Peace in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14, no. 4 (2020): 483-500, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1780017. ↩︎
Matveeva, 18. ↩︎
Cover photo: mountains of Batken region, (C) the website of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic